Fruit and Vegetable Safety During the Holidays

Contaminated food is an extremely common problem. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that germs in food make 48 million Americans sick every year – that’s one out of six people. About 128,000 are made sick enough to be hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

Year to date, there have been 22 outbreaks investigated by the CDC, including the dangerous E. coli outbreak currently linked to romaine lettuce. It’s the highest number of total investigations compared to the past 12 years.

The FDA and the CDC have cautioned people not to eat romaine lettuce while they investigate the outbreak. It’s very similar to an outbreak of E. coli that killed one person and made at least 25 people ill last year that was traced to leafy green vegetables but not to romaine lettuce specifically.

This is the second outbreak of E. coli linked to romaine lettuce this year. An outbreak this past spring killed five people and made 210 sick in 36 states. It was eventually traced to contaminated canal water in a farming area in Yuma, Arizona.

Although California may be the source of romaine lettuce blamed in an outbreak of E. coli infections that have made 32 people sick in 11 states and Canada, the CDC is stressing that we continue to be cautious of romaine lettuce regardless of its origin.

Is romaine somehow riskier than other vegetables and fruits? Not likely.

What is known is where E. coli comes from. Like so many other bacteria that contaminate food, it comes from fecal matter. Wild animals may roam through fields, or irrigation water might flow from nearby pastures or feedlots where livestock is raised. Contamination can be further spread when produce is harvested and passes through machinery to clean, trim, chop and package it. Like many other foods, romaine is often processed and repackaged before it ships out to grocery stores and restaurants.

Eating a diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables provides important health benefits, but it’s important that you select and prepare them safely.

Fruits and vegetables add nutrients to your diet that help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. In addition, choosing vegetables, fruits, nuts, and other produce over high-calorie foods can help you manage your weight.

But sometimes raw fruits and vegetables contain harmful germs, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, that can make you and your family sick. In the United States, nearly half of foodborne illnesses are caused by germs on fresh produce.

Since fresh fruits and vegetables are not cooked, anything that is left on them after they come into contact with other things will be consumed. This includes micro-organisms in organic manure and in the water used for irrigation and initial rinsing, microbes on the hands of the people who pick the produce, the containers and vehicles used to store and transport it, and droppings from birds that fly over the field.

Eating unwashed, raw fruits and vegetables increases your risk of dangerous bacterial infections, including E. Coli and Salmonella. If you eat fruits without properly washing, then there will be high chance to affect by various disease-causing microorganisms which could be causes of food poisoning.

Wash everything that will come into contact with your produce while you’re cooking; including your hands, cooking surfaces, utensils, and the produce itself. It is best to wash your fruits and vegetables under running water. Make sure to remove any bruised or damaged areas of the produce. Be sure to store all cut or peeled fruits and vegetables properly. And remember, they should be refrigerated within two hours of preparation if they are not going to be cooked.

Certain people have a greater chance of getting food poisoning and it is especially important to be careful when preparing food for them. Those people are the very young, adults older than 65 years old, pregnant women, or anyone with a weakened immune system.

Although most cases of food poisoning are mild, only lasting a few days, there are some more severe forms. If you experience vomiting or diarrhea for more than three days, have a high fever greater than 101F, or see blood in your stool, you should talk to your doctor immediately.

With a little bit of new knowledge and care, you can protect yourself, enjoy a healthier diet and live a healthier life. Just remember to buy right, store properly, separate for safety and prepare safely.

The safest produce is cooked; the next safest is washed. Enjoy uncooked fruits and vegetables while taking steps to avoid foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning.

How you handle food matters – whether it’s meat, poultry, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, or leftovers. The harmful bugs that cause food poisoning can show up in any of those foods.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan. Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. He is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics. For more good health information listen to Glenn, on radio in Philadelphia; Boston; Shreveport; Los Angeles; and Birmingham., or visit: www.glennellis.com